Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Day With Satchmo - August 1, 1957

This might be the most overdue blog I've ever written. It started when Loren Schoenberg wrote me an e-mail last month ago with the subject line, "Please forgive me," and a simple one sentence message: "You have undoubtedly written all of this up somewhere, but is the iTunes download of A Day With Satchmo unique?"

Surely, I had written about it somewhere (and I didn't call him Shirley), but I was too lazy to search for it, so I wrote a fresh recommendation for it to Loren and left it at that. Then a few weeks later, while having lunch with Michael Steinman, I casually tossed off something about hearing Louis at work in the recording studio on the release of the August 1, 1957 session, assuming he would agree with my point. But no, Michael didn't have A Day With Satchmo. Nor had he even heard of it.

And that's when it really hit me: oh my goodness, I never blogged about it! I searched the contents of my blog and except for a quick allusion to it, no, I never mentioned it.

I really don't know how I forgot to do this because the discovery of the existence of this material was an unforgettable moment. Have time for a little backstory? No? Well, skip ahead. For those with some more time, here's how it came about.

When I got my first copy of Jos Willems's discographical masterpiece, All of Me, in 2006, I drooled over all the items marked "Unissued," especially the takes and takes and takes listed from some studio session tapes. I was fortunate to start corresponding with Willems in 2008 and he so graciously told me to use his Armstrong discography as a "catalog" and to simply request whatever I wanted to hear. Boy, did I take him up on that request....

I  was especially curious about his entry for August 1, 1957. That was in the middle of the recording of Ella and Louis Again, a 2-LP set that featured a handful of solo selections from both Armstrong and Fitzgerald. Louis recorded his four tunes on the aforementioned date, backed by Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, Ray Brown and Louie Bellson, a first class rhythm section to my ears. I knew the material backwards but Willems had every single take, breakdown, rehearsal, master, etc. listed in All of Me. Naturally, that was one of my first requests.

You could imagine my disappointment when Willems told me that he only had that information "in written form," taken from the ledgers of recording sessions done at Capitol Studios. I took him at his word but part of me wondered why the detailed, take-by-take information only existed for the August 1 session and nothing else. Hmmmm.....

Flash forward to late 2010. Richard Havers and Bill Levenson of Universal Music visited the Louis Armstrong Archives as they were planning on doing a 10-CD boxed set, spanning Pops's entire career across all the different labels he recorded for. The plan was to do seven discs of retrospective and then three discs of bonuses. They asked me what kind of bonus material might be lurking in the Universal vaults. I told them about Louis's 1956 set at the Hollywood Bowl, which made the cut, but also the various session tapes described in Willems's book. Especially August 1, 1957. I told them that if they found that one, they'd have the motherlode.

Well, it wasn't easy--Universal owns almost every label you can think of and if you think it's easy to find anything in the vaults, you're wrong--but eventually Richard wrote back that the legendary producer Russ Titelman turned up the tapes! Hallelujah! They were digitally transferred and the next thing I knew, I had a high-resolution files of the entire session on my computer. Plus scans of the tape boxes, such as this one:

I had my work cut out for me as I now had hours and hours of material at my fingertips and it was up to me to whittle it down to about 80 minutes of the best "Rare and Unreleased" Louis. I did my damndest and later blogged about my participation in the set here. The set was released in August 2011 to critical acclaim and, of course, sold out within five months after it received a helluva endorsement from Elvis Costello. Hooray for Pops!

By this point, Universal was flying high. "More Louis!" came the call from above. Richard Havers had the brilliant idea to do a download-only version of the complete August 1, 1957 session. I was thrilled about it because I was now one of a handful of people who had heard the entire session and it was, to my ears, something that hardcore Louis nuts from around the world would love listening to.

Of course, 85+ minutes of multiple versions of only five different songs isn't going to be for the layman, thus, it was given the download-only treatment. I know some fuddy-duddys frown at the prevalence of downloads (I do, too, sometimes since I learned more about jazz from liner notes than any textbook), but hey, it's the reality of today's music-buying world and if that's way the major labels are willing to release rare treasures from their vaults, I'm all for it.

The whole thing was put together in the summer of 2012 and released as A Day With Satchmo, just in time for the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans. I went down there with Richard and we gave a presentation on it, played examples, did interviews and pushed the hell out of it.

Except on this blog! When I got back from New Orleans, I got swept into my usual world of sporadic blogs and crazy day-to-day activities (I was deep in co-producing Satchmo at Symphony Hall at that point) and somehow never did a separate blog on a release that was cause for celebration in the Pops community. So here it is, a little late but better late than never. 

Well, that explains the backstory on how this material even got to see the light of the day, but to return to Loren's original it any good?

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I mean, this is Louis Armstrong we're talking about....and Peterson, Ellis, Brown and Bellson. And the cream of the Great American Song Book. An opportunity to hear these masters at work, messing up, joking around, locking in, I don't know, to me at least, it's priceless.

I just mentioned joking around but I should warn that these aren't unedited session tapes.  No, every time Norman Granz was ready to record a master, he'd hit record. Thus, a lot of the actual rehearsals, discussions on key and stuff, that never existed in the first place. But what does survive is still fantastic and does contain lots of real fly-on-the-wall stuff.

More backstory: Louis was booked in Vegas for the summer of 1957, a luxury to spend so much time in one place. But Granz wanted to make a lot of recordings and though Glaser charged an arm and a leg, Granz was willing to pay to get the sessions he wanted. So much for rest; for much of the summer, Louis would have to fly from Vegas to Los Angeles to record for Granz, often tired and with abused chops. He started off without a problem as his playing on the first Ella and Louis Again date on July 23 is something to marvel at, especially on "Our Love is Here to Stay" and "Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good to You."

But on the August 1, they're starting to show some wear and tear, which finally turned into a problem during the Russell Garcia-arranged dates on August 14 and 15. The August 1 session opens with "Indiana," Louis's favorite number to warm up on, and something that was also cozy for the Peterson's. This had been issued in 1995 (another reason I knew the complete session tapes had to exist) and I've shared it on the blog before so here it is one more time: 

You can hear a little wear on Louis's chops but nothing alarming, as he improvises some very nice new ideas, in addition to trotting out his set solo. And if you noticed on the picture of the tape box I shared above, someone at the session wrote in disbelief that "Louis was at end of studio!"

I guess it was decided to give Louis some extra time to get his chops together. He would only play on one of the four masters recorded that day, "Willow Weep for Me," so that was saved for the ending. I don't think anyone would ever complain about Louis's singing and if you've heard the famous released takes of "Makin' Whoopee," "I Get a Kick Out of You" and "Let's Do It," you know how great they are.

It's hearing them take shape that makes A Day With Satchmo  so special. There's slight hesitation on the first take of "Makin' Whoopee," but other moments are better than the master (Granz didn't believe in splicing from take-to-take). Louis gets off a hilarious joke when someone tell him to sing the first line, "Another bride," with feeling. "I've felt up many-a-brides," he quips. Later Ray Brown (I think) makes reference to Louis swigging Swiss Kriss between takes. And when the normally infallible Oscar Peterson botches an introductory arpeggio on "I Get a Kick Out of You," he handles it with humor and modesty.

"I Get a Kick Out of You" has always been one of my desert island discs (blogged about here before I had the alternate takes) and hearing that piece take shape was a particular delight. Of the 13 takes, many are false starts and breakdowns but there are two other complete masters that seriously give the master a run for its money. I don't know how Granz chose the one he ultimately did, but with so many great choices, he couldn't lose.

And the complete alternate of "Let's Do It" is a lot of fun, not only hearing Louis go through every one of Cole Porter's clever choruses, but also hearing him mess up. He gets tongue-tied at least three times but never stops, knowing Granz wouldn't release it, but also wanted to get all the mistakes out of his system. He did and again, the master is a gem.

Finally, we get to "Willow Weep for Me" and four takes with trumpet solos. The first two are admittedly rough going, but again, fascinating in their own way. Here's Louis Armstrong, jazz's greatest genius, approaching a song he had never played before with less-than-100% chops. Like the alternate of "Let's Do It," he seems to want to play with a few motifs and get the mistakes out of his system. Finally, he just about nails it on the third attempt, which Granz could have issued, but instead he called for one more, which turned out to be the ultra bluesy, lowdown exploration that made it to the album.

And with that, Pops was finished. 85 minutes while the tapes rolled, but probably a difficult four-hour session overall....and then a gig in Vegas that night. Bless him.

Thus, if this sounds like your idea of a good time, drop a little change to iTunes and check out what an entire session sounded like with Louis Armstrong and these other marvelous musicians. Again, this is the link (or just search "A Day with Satchmo"). Needless to say, a day with Satchmo is always my idea of a good time and if you feel the same way, don't pass this one up. And if you've been listening to it since it came out last year, leave a comment or drop me a line because I am curious to know how others perceive such a complete, warts-and-all artifact.

1 comment:

fc803ba2-2f68-11e3-8451-000bcdcb8a73 said...

Thank you for posting this! I can't wait to get home and download this from I tunes.